Joshua 6 tells the classic tale of Israel’s conquest of the Canaanite city of Jericho. After assuring Joshua that he has given them the city (v 2), the Lord lays out orders for them to follow to carry out the conquest (vv 3-5):
“You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”
Instead of giving Israel a military strategy, God instructs them in a worship march, fighting the battle by praising the Lord. Most of the remaining narrative gives the painstaking details of Israel’s compliance with God’s commands under Joshua’s direction. They march and blow trumpets, and they march and blow trumpets, and they march and blow trumpets…and they march some more (did I mention they also played the trumpet?)!
And all of this is in circles. They go around and around the city daily for a week, then seven times on the final day. That had to get old, don’t you think? Talk about repetitive and monotonous! Surely there was a better plan than this. Surely there was something that would get the job done more quickly and efficiently. What was God thinking?
Perhaps we wonder the same about corporate worship. We gather every week, at the same time, in the same place, to do the same things: we sing praises, read scripture, offer prayers, listen to the proclamation of God’s word, and commemorate Jesus’ death. We go round and round these same acts together so often we get to know what to do perhaps without even thinking about it. And we wonder: what’s the point? What are we doing here?—and why?
I think those are questions the Israelites may have asked during that week of marching around Jericho. The outcome of their laborious efforts wasn’t evident immediately; only at the end of the week did Jericho’s walls fall, opening up the pathway to victory. Sometimes weekly worship doesn’t seem like its accomplishing much in us. If we worship based on results, visible and verifiable, immediate and instantaneous, we’re going to think we’re just going in circles, or as we say, “going through the motions.”
At this point one of two things happens. We may search for some way of worship that is more exciting, stimulating, and adrenaline-pumping. Or we busy ourselves with work, with projects to lose ourselves in so we can have a sense of accomplishment, a sense that something is actually happening. But neither our efforts to produce a spiritual feeling or accomplish a religious task will satisfy us for long, so we keep seeking to reproduce the feelings or we turn to another project to occupy us. All the while, actual worship gets neglected; God gets ignored.
Faithful corporate worship is always going to “go through the motions” because the motions of praise and thanksgiving, hearing and responding, giving and blessing, confessing and pardoning, are pleasing to God and good for us. In a way, worship is subliminal. We don’t always (or often) realize the effects it has on us, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t using worship as a means of transformation in us.
Just as the Israelites may not have understood any method to their marching orders, we may not understand why we keep doing these same things, week after week. Nevertheless, worship is God’s chosen way of molding us into Christ’s image and equipping us for service to others. So let’s give ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters is worship, with a genuine spirit, trusting that while we may be going in circles, God is leading us in the right direction.